That Which Rolls

I’ve been riding bicycles—what the pataphysician, playwright, and avid cyclist Alfred Jarry called “That Which Rolls”—almost as long as I’ve been walking. I haven’t had a car since 1998, so bicycles have been my primary mode of transportation as an adult. Just after I built a new Big-Boy Bike a few years ago, a young friend asked me for some bike-building advice. I found myself qualifying my advice more than actually giving him any. I was trying to explain that I grew up riding BMX bikes, so I approach other builds from that background.

Me and my Big-Boy Bike at Forsyth Park in Savannah, Georgia. [photo by my friend Peter Relic]
The friend in question was in his early twenties, and as I started explaining my involvement in BMX in the 1980s, I noticed his brow crinkling. He didn’t get it. The further I went, the more I realized that I was attempting to bridge a generation gap.

My bike-curious friend didn’t seem to believe that BMX could’ve been that big in my youth. During my competitive Freestyle (as BMX trick riding was called back then) days, I lived in Southeast Alabama. We had bike-shop-sponsored local contests every other weekend and regional ones monthly, as well as shows to do and the occasional national event thanks to the AFA (American Freestyle Association). From the early-to-mid-1980s to the early 1990s BMX was hectic: My age class in those national contests often boasted well over a hundred entrants. One thing I tried to explain to my friend was that though we played video games (e.g., Atari, Nintendo, arcade games, etc.), riding one’s bike was still way more exciting. Our hands were far more likely to be found on BMX grips than joysticks.

The author kicking a blurry backwards infinity roll sometime in the late 1980s.

Therein lies the first major difference: The experience of a BMXer today is much more likely to be mediated by technology than it was during any previous era. Given the proliferation of technology into every aspect of our lives, that’s not much of an insight, but in addition to the lack of distractingly immersive video games, the riders of thirty years ago were also missing out on the parks. There were like three ride-able skate parks in the whole country. Now there are at least that many in every city of any size whatsoever. Where the past was spent riding curb cuts, banks, walls, streets, and backyard ramps, today the terrain consists of those as well as many human-made options. It makes for different bikes, different riding, different tricks, and different values.

Flatland used to be one-half of Freestyle BMX. Now it is obscured out-of-sight in parking structures and flat driveways. Its intricate moves and flowing connections do not translate to television coverage. The pedestrian spectator nor the beginning rider are able to tell the difference between difficult and impossible (I covered this more thoroughly years ago in a story for ESPN). The same can be said for other kinds of riding: flow and style are less valued than the big trick. One huge trick at the X-Games can make a career.

Riders still go looking for street spots and terrain to tackle, but back in the day—aside from backyard raps and plywood propped up on bricks—that’s all there was. The spread of skateparks changed not only the scarcity of spots, but the spread of information about those spots. Having a central place to meet and exchange ideas changes the dynamics of a local scene thereby affecting overall progression of the sport.

With that said, nothing has changed the collective knowledge of BMXers more than mobile technologies. Before cellphones, cameraphones, iPhones, smaller and smaller digital cameras and video cameras, and even the web, riders relied on a handful of magazines and zines to keep up on what was happening: new companies and products, who was riding for whom, and—more importantly—who was doing what new tricks. An individual or crew in some remote enclave could be light years ahead of the overall curve of the sport and no one would know. For example, when Kevin Jones burst onto the flatland scene in the late 1980s, it was due in part to his appearances at national AFA contests which were covered by the major magazines, but knowledge of Kevin’s progression was largely spread through the mail by zines and videotapes. Hiding such talent is much more difficult now—even if you try. Can you imagine Mat Hoffman’s Highest Air Ever happening in total obscurity today?

Mat Hoffman high in the haze, 1991.

Mobile media can make one famous. Like the X-Games, one huge trick—or one huge crash—captured on camera and immediately distributed online might not make a career, but it can make someone an instant star.

Photocopy and Find Out

Skateboard and BMX zines defined my formative years. Those handmade, photocopied publications were our network of news, stories, interviews, events, art, and pictures. It’s very difficult to describe how an outmoded phenomena like that worked once such epochal technological change, one that uproots and supplants its cultural practices (i.e., the internet), has occurred. FREESTYLIN’ Magazine’s reunion book, Generation F (Endo Publishing, 2008; flip through it at the link), has a chapter called “The Xerox was Our X-Box,” and that title gets at the import of these things. As I said in that very chapter, “Making a zine was always having something to send someone that showed them what you could do, what you were up to, and what you were into. Ours was the pre-web BMX network.”

A small sample of my zines over the years.

At best, zines represent a hidden circuit of media, a grassroots exchange of information and ideas that slips through the cracks of popular culture. Zines are power in the hands of the fans. As Mark Lewman, editor of FREESTYLIN’ Magazine and head of Club Homeboy, as well as “Chariot of the Ninja” zine, points out, “The first zine I did once I moved to California was called ‘Homeboy’. I did one issue and some stickers, and it ballooned into a mail-order lifestyle company with 15,000 members, and became one of the first youth culture magazines, a pastiche of art and sport and randomness. So, the power of zines is pretty unlimited as far as I can tell.”

In spite of the proliferation of the internet, zines are not entirely a thing of the past. Every time we do something on our own instead of just taking what’s given to us, we strike a blow to the massive media machine that constantly shoves products and personality down our throats. Making your own zine is not only immeasurably rewarding (ask anyone who’s ever done one), but it gets your point of view out there and incites dialog between readers, riders and other zine-makers that wouldn’t necessarily take place.

Independent journalists wield the power to expose local underground talent as well. There were always obscure riders in sporadic locales ripping like top pros. There are always great bands no one has heard. The way to get them noticed was not to bug out about major magazines’ lack of attention, but to give the magazines a reason to pay attention. As ex-editor of Faction BMX Magazine John Paul Rogers puts it, “Quit bitching and get off your ass and do something about it.”

So, though they’re as much a part of the process anymore, I cannot overstate the importance of the experience of trading and making zines. There’s something to the physicality of the pages in your hand and the focus on those pages that pixels on screens don’t afford. As I said in FREESTYLIN’ Generation F, “Those first issues were the first steps on a path I still follow.”

Still true.

Portable Document Formats:

My Daniel Menche interview from wow&flutter.

If you’re interested, I scanned and uploaded a couple of my later zines as .pdfs. wow&flutter (1997) was an attempt to bring together experimental noise of all kinds and featured interviews with Daniel Menche, John Duncan, and a cover story about turntablism. It was intended as part of a series, but the second issue, attack&decay, featuring interviews with Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto and Warren Defever of His Name is Alive, among others, never made it to press. I still love the idea of noise and hip-hop coming together, and there are others who’ve merged them in the meantime better than I could have imagined (e.g., dälek, clipping., Ho99o9, Death Grips, Cloaks, Justin Broadrick and Kevin Martin, et al.)

A spread from HEADTUBE featuring Leif Valin. [layout by me.]

HEADTUBE (2001) was my attempt to return to BMX zine-making while maintaining my other, newfound interests in the early 00s. Though I maintained the website for years after, the zine ended up as another one-off print publication. It features interviews with Seattle ripper Steve Machuga, flatland guru Leif Valin, and the band Milemarker, as well as reviews of books, records, and other media. I still have a few copies of the print version. Let me know if you’re interested.

The pilot issue of discontents and the long-arm stapler: a zine-making essential.
Oh, and if you missed the pilot issue of discontents, the latest zine I worked on with my friends Patrick Barber and Craig Gates, we’re working on a proper debut issue. More on that soon!

Alfred Jarry: Live Wrong

“A few decades ago, it became permissible for families to emigrate from the unincorporated areas of ‘reality’ into the science fictional zones,” reads the manual in Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Vintage, 2010), and lately it’s been feeling more and more like we’re slipping into an adjacently possible dimension. Consider the following scenarios:

  • A man is imprisoned, accused of encouraging and enabling the digital distribution of audio and video amusements. All of his property is confiscated, his assets are frozen, and before his arrest, his house is raided by armed and jack-booted storm-troopers.
  • A man ends his own life, having been accused of distributing information he garnered from a source that didn’t care if he freely spread their knowledge.
  • A man is disgraced after winning a contest that tests athletic prowess through extreme endurance on bicycles. The competitors having been fed on-the-go with concoctions made to enhance their stamina. The winner of such a race also endures side-effects that include extreme self-absorption and hubris.

The latter of these is the premise of The Supermale, a novel set in the its own future (see Raunig, 2010), by author, poet, playwright, and cyclist, Alfred Jarry. Long one of my favorite eccentrics, his passion for cycling and pistols was matched only by his appetite for alcohol and absurdity.

Alfred Jarry portrait by Picasso

Unlike his contemporaries (e.g., Proust, Gide, Valéry, et al.), Jarry’s work hasn’t lent itself to widespread study in the same way that it has widespread influence. Among his admirers were Andre Breton, Antonin Artaud, Marcel Duchamp, and Pablo Picasso. He is most widely recognized for writing the absurdist Ubu plays and inventing the science of Pataphysics.

Simply put, Pataphysics is to metaphysics what metaphysics is to physics: It’s one level up. “Pataphysics… is the science of that which is superinduced upon metaphysics,” writes Jarry (1965), “whether within or beyond the latter’s limitations, extending as far beyond metaphysics as the latter extends beyond physics” (p. 21). He adds, “Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments” (p. 22). In what is perhaps the best example of the science applied, Dr. Faustroll, the pataphysician, even put together plans for the construction of a time machine (see Jarry, 2001, pp. 211-218). If there’s ever a scientific discovery that proves pataphysical, it’s sure to be time travel.

Inhabitants of Universe 31 are separated into two categories, protagonist and back office.
 How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Alastair Brotchie’s Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life (MIT Press, 2011) goes a long way to explore his life and lingering influence. Its alternating chapters — odd-numbered chapters covering anecdotal tales of Jarry’s twisted times, even-numbered ones documenting his biography proper — play on one of Jarry’s favorite tropes: the mirror or double. His life was his work was his life, and as Regent of the Collége de ‘Pataphysique, Brotchie has studied both very closely. And it shows: This bulky biography is the most complete chronicle of Jarry’s life available.

This proud picture of human grandeur is unfortunately an illusion and is counterbalanced by a reality that is very different. — Lewis Mumford

Bringing together Jarry’s life-long loves of alcohol, bicycles, and sex, The Supermale is an allegory of extremes. As Bettina Knapp (1989) writes, “The bicycle, the Perpetual Motion Food Machine, the dynameter, and the Machine to Inspire Love suggest a takeover by the very instruments designed to alleviate pain and suffering and facilitate daily living,” At the center of this collusion of bodies and machines lies the 10,000-mile race, an analogue to the real race of similar lengthy proportions — and to the extremes winners will go to win. Knapp adds, “Even more dangerous, perhaps, is the fact that machines increasingly cut people off from nature in general and from their own nature, in particular” (p. 28). If this story and its lessons haven’t damn near come true recently, then I’m reading it all wrong.

References:
Brotchie, Alastair. (2011). Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Jarry, Alfred. (1965). Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician. Cambridge, MA: Exact Change.
Jarry, Alfred. (2001). Adventures in ‘Pataphysics: Collected Works I. London: Atlas Press.
Knapp, Bettina L. (1989). Machine, Metaphor, and the Writer: A Jungian View. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Mumford, Lewis. (1934). Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.
Raunig, Gerald. (2010). A Thousand Machines: A Concise Philosophy of the Machine as Social Movement. New York: Semiotext(e).
Yu, Charles. (2010). How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. New York: Vintage.

The Wiregrass Local Podcast

This week I was a guest on The Wiregrass Local podcast with my dude Justin April. We talked about making zines, working on magazines, drawing logos, writing books, and other things we both learned growing up in skateboarding culture.

 

As mentioned in the podcast, for the month of January, I have a small collection of drawings and designs hanging at Reset Mercantile in Dothan, Alabama. The opening is this Friday, January 6th, from 5-8pm, during Dothan’s First Friday Art Crawl. Some of my pieces are portraits from Follow for Now, Vol. 2, some are pieces from Boogie Down Predictions, some are solicited and unsolicited illustrations and logos, and some are just random scribbles from the past few years. I’ve posted examples of my work on Behance.

Reset Mercantile is located at 2407 Montgomery Highway in Dothan, Alabama. The First Friday Art Crawl is January 6th, from 5-8pm, but my drawings are up until the end of the month, so come through if you’re in the area.

Many thanks to Justin April at Reset and The Wiregrass Local for the opportunity, and everyone who’s come by to see my stuff.

 

HEADTUBE zine

In the early 00s, I was trying to pull together a lot of influences. HEADTUBE was my attempt to return to BMX zine-making while maintaining my other, newfound interests.

The original idea driving HEADTUBE was to unify the bicycle-riding attitude across styles. Cyclists, mountain bikers, fixed-gear heads, and BMX all have different styles and terrains, but there’s still a view they all share. That shared space was where HEADTUBE was going to live.

I started a website for it around the same time as this first issue, and I ran that pretty diligently for a few years, then I moved on to other things. I never made another print issue, so here is a .pdf of the only one.

15/51

Inspired by Brian Tunney and his zine Larry’s Donuts is Dead, I’ve been wanting to restage this photo from a year-book shoot in 1986. Though you can’t tell from the background, I went back to the same church parking lot where the original was taken and did the barhop again. 

Tunney does this with famous BMX photos and spots from old magazines. Despite my impeccable fashion sense, this picture didn’t even make the yearbook!